Continental Fur Trade And Exploration


Desire for furs as well as proselytizing zeal moved the French to colonize the New World. In their search for pelts and souls, traders and black-robed fathers had penetrated the heart of the continent by the end of the seventeenth century. The Dutch at New Amsterdam were agents of Netherlands merchants engaged in the Indian trade. The Pilgrims' first export was a cargo of furs, and Massachusetts Bay Colony had hardly been settled when its traders began to expand New England along the shores of Maine. Colonists of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas had trade routes and outposts across the Appalachians before their settlements left tidewater. The Indian trade was one of the British colonies' principal enterprises, and efforts of the mother country to regulate it was a cause of colonial discontent. Dissensions among the colonies sometimes arose from competition for Indian markets.

The Indian trade was the primary wedge in a continental thrust. In the American colonies, settlers followed close upon the heels of traders, forcing them inexorably toward the unexplored, unmapped West. In Canada, the expansion of settlements was retarded by the policies first of French and then British trading companies. By the end of the seventeenth century, French coureurs de bois (unlicensed traders escaping the heavy hand of exclusive privilege) had pushed up the St. Lawrence into the Great Lakes country, the Old Northwest, and the Canadian Plains. By the close of the next century, Canadian "pedlars" competed with the British Hudson's Bay Company for the trade of the interior; by the beginning of the nineteenth century, British and American entrepreneurs contemplated a transcontinental trade. Such trade depended on practicable routes of communication; hence traders had to be explorers as well as merchants. Their travels led them to seek "eligible" rivers on the basis of a geography composed of rumored "facts" and whimsically devised fiction.

Joliet and Marquette discovered the Mississippi in 1673. A decade later LaSalle explored a fragment of its principal tributary, the Missouri. According to the Baron La Hontan's fictitious travels this "grand riviere des Esmourites" was navigable for 1000 miles; its source lay in a high but narrow "height of land" from which the waters leaped in a series of violent cataracts to the level plains. A short portage over the mountains led the adventurer to a westward-flowing river and thence to the great salt sea. So convincing was the legend that the Shining, White, Stony or Rocky Mountains, the River of the West--even a great salt lake--were fixed ideas of geography before white men had seen any of them.

While the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) sought openings into the continent from the shores of Hudson Bay, French traders from the St. Lawrence Valley entered the Canadian Plains by the Great Lakes and their peripheral network of lesser lakes and rivers. Pierre Gaultier, Sieur de La Verendrye, was licensed to trade at Lake Nipigon, where between 1726 and 1731 he learned from his Indian customers of great mountains to the west and a westward-flowing river. For more than twenty years he and his sons sought that river with almost fanatical persistence. They extended a line of posts to Lake Winnipeg and built a temporary trading house at the fork of the Saskatchewan. In 1738 their searches took them to the Upper Missouri. In 1742-1743, Verendrye's sons traveled up the river until they sighted mountains--probably the Black Hills--which they were "vexed not to be able to ascend" because of the hostility of the Indians.

The report of their journeys in the Missouri plains may have been the source of Major Robert Rogers' interest in the West. A Massachusetts colonial who had served in the British campaigns against the French, Rogers petitioned the British Crown in 1765 to support an expedition under his leadership "from the Great Lakes towards the head of the Mississippi and thence to the river called by the Indians Ouragon."

Nothing came of Rogers' project; but Jonathan Carver elaborated Rogers' geography in his mythical travels, claiming that "the River Oregon, or the River of the West . . . falls into the Pacific Ocean at the Straits of Annian." Thus, before 1775, the La Verendryes, Rogers, and Carver had contributed to geographical speculation a Missouri-River-of-the-West route to the sea. Carver and Rogers also gave to history the word Oregon.

Hudson's Bay Company Traders And Canadian Pedlars

At the conclusion of the Great War of Empire (1763) the St. Lawrence and Ohio valleys became part of Great Britain's extended New World empire under the administration of a colonial governor. But the vast Canadian region called Rupert's Land, drained by waters flowing into Hudson Bay, was open only to the HBC.

The Hudson's Bay Company was a chartered joint-stock company founded in 1670 under the title "The Governor and Company of Adventurers trading into Hudson's Bay."1 In return for its monopoly of trade in a domain of royal dimensions, the Company was obligated to deliver to the king, on his visits to Canada, two elk and two beaver skins, and to search for the Northwest Passage. This it did only sporadically, when public pressure demanded. The Company's conservative but financially sound policies, set up by the Governor and Committee in London, were executed by factors and traders at the posts, manned by Orkney and Iroquois servants.

After the victory over the French, the Company's rivals were British subjects, Montreal merchants of Scottish blood who had emigrated to the New World after the war. These merchants formed partnerships with "pedlars" who traveled among the Indians to trade for furs. From time to time merchants and pedlars combined to reduce competition among themselves and to strengthen their position against the British-owned and managed HBC. In 1783-1784 one such fragile combination was organized under the name of the North West Company. It was reorganized in 1787 and again in 1804 under the same name.2

The North West Company was an association of Canadians; of Montreal merchants who purchased trading goods and marketed the furs, and of partners-in-the-field, or wintering partners, stationed at posts in the interior or engaged in travels among the natives. At annual meetings at Michilimackinac or Fort William, which alternated with convivial reunions at Montreal, the partners settled accounts, divided profits, and set policies for the next year.

As old partners retired, energetic young men whose talents had been tested with responsibilities, were promoted to their places. This encouraged young clerks and traders and gave them a stake in the business. Especially it encouraged them to anticipate every move of their English competitors, and to extend the trade into the interior. In this they were supported by the services of skilled French Canadians as voyageurs or boatmen, who propelled canoes and bateaux and shouldered 90-pound packs of furs across portages. These were the laborers who moved the trade.

Scottish-born Alexander Mackenzie, one of the founders of the North West Company of 1787, was a pioneer both in exploration and in schemes for an enterprise of continental scope. He planned and carried out two amazing explorations. The first took him in 1789 to the Arctic by way of the river which bears his name.

His second expedition in 1793 brought him to the Pacific Ocean. He literally pushed his way up the Parsnip branch of Peace River to its headwaters in the Rockies. He portaged to a river which the Indians called Tacoutche Tesse, which we know today as the Fraser, but which he thought was the legendary River of the West. Forced to abandon its dangerous waters, Mackenzie crossed by Indian trail to the coast near Point Menzies. At Dean Channel he learned from the natives of the visit, only a month before, of Lieutenant Johnstone of Vancouver's surveying party. To mark the western terminus of his overland voyage Mackenzie used a mixture of grease and vermilion to paint on a rocky ledge the words: "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three."

His Voyages, published in 1801, is a classic narrative of adventure and exploration. He offered final and convincing proof that there was no Northwest Passage, no Strait of de Fonte, within the continent north of 50 degrees. The "immense ridge, or succession of stony mountains" through which he passed divided the waters of the Atlantic from those of the Pacific. "In those snow-clad mountains" he concluded, "rises the Mississippi of we admit the Missouri to be its source, which flows into the Gulph of Mexico; the River Nelson, which is lost in Hudson's Bay; Mackenzie's River, the discharges itself into the North Sea; and the Columbia emptying itself into the Pacific Ocean."

While his fundamental conclusion was correct, Mackenzie was in error in one important detail. When writing his book, he knew of Gray's discovery and Broughton's exploration of the lower Columbia. He assumed that the Tacoutche Tesse was the upper part of the same river. Therefore, he suggested that a continental trade could be developed using the Nelson, Saskatchewan, and Columbia rivers to connect with a terminal post at the mouth of the Columbia.

. . . whatever course may be taken from the Atlantic, the Columbia is the line of communication from the Pacific Ocean, pointed out by nature, as it is the only navigable river in the whole extent of Vancouver's minute survey of that coast; its banks . . .[are] the most Northern situation fit for colonization, and suitable to the residence of a civilized people. By opening this intercourse between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and forming regular establishments through the interior, and at both extremes, as well as along the coasts and islands, the entire command of the fur trade of North America might be obtained, from latitude 48 North to the pole. . . . to this may be added the fishing in both seas, and the markets of the four quarters of the globe.3

In 1802, Mackenzie proposed a company which would combine whaling with a land and sea fur trade and commerce with China. He urged the British government to provide protection for establishments at Nootka Sound, Sea Otter Harbor (at Dixon Entrance), and on the Columbia River. And he asked the government to force the East India and Hudson's Bay companies either to abandon their exclusive monopolies or to license the new company and cooperate with it in the Orient and in Canada.

His large view of the industry was not shared by either the government or his merchant associates in the North West Company. He withdrew from the company in 1799, and when he reentered in the organization in 1804 he had no immediate influence on policy. However, his Voyages had an influence far beyond expectations. It was read by Jefferson and carried by Lewis and Clark on their expedition to the Pacific Northwest.

Louisiana And The American West.

While the Canadians were advancing into the interior of the continent, the Spanish in Louisiana were trying to build up defences against their powerful neighbors. In acquiring French Louisiana (1763), Spain secured what she hoped was a broad protective belt for her provinces of New Spain, against British invaders. The presidios built in California after 1769 were expected to protect them from both Britain and Russia on the Pacific. but the Mississippi-Missouri boundary was unexplored and undefended. There Spain faced not only the British from Canada, but, after the American Revolution, an energetic new nation with a continental orientation. In 1792, not only were the Americans poised on the Mississippi with eyes fixed on Spanish lands, but, it was reported, Canadian Nor'Westers, under Francois Larocque, were "established and fortified about fifteen days' march" from the Mandan villages on the upper Missouri.4

Spain's local officials therefore encouraged St. Louis merchants, with a monopoly grant, to form a syndicate for the purpose of exploring and garrisoning the upper river. (In the geography of the early fur trade, the Upper Missouri was that portion of the river above the mouth of the Platte, marked by the beginning of the open plains.) During the next five years the Company of Explorers of the Upper Missouri, or hardy independents associated with them, pushed beyond the Mandan villages of North Dakota to the waters of the Riviere Roches Jaunes, the Yellowstone.

But the interests of the syndicate were in trade; only incidentally in exploration or defence. Desperate colonial governors might plead for speedy help "to restrain the usurpation of the English," but Madrid was occupied with revolutionary Europe. Spain's empire in North America had lived out its term and was ready for the taking; with regard to Louisiana the question was only when, and by whom. Between 1790 and 1800 three potential takers emerged: the United States, Great Britain, and France.5

As early as the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin had pointed out the significance of the continental hinterland to whatever nation should possess it. But the principal architect of United States policy concerning the West was Thomas Jefferson. As private citizen and public officer his interest was both intellectual and political. He was curious about its geography, its inhabitants, its flora and fauna. As we have seen earlier, he encouraged John Ledyard's scheme because it might increase knowledge of the continent and promote American trade.

Jefferson was an expansionist but not an imperialist. He looked upon North America as a breeding ground for republican ideas and institutions, a home for the new nation's children, organized into independent states; and as a source for their prosperity. His immediate concern however was to protect both the nation and the West from foreign powers hostile to republican ideology and institutions. He was sympathetic with the spirit that impelled Americans to trespass into the Floridas, to cross the Appalachians, and to infiltrate Spanish lands.

So long as the lands were in the possession of powers hostile to republican institutions, the West--the Mississippi Valley, the heart of the continent--was a threat to the nation and its future. The point of friction was the Mississippi River where the interests of American frontiersmen came into conflict with Spain over her vacillating policies concerning navigation of the river and transshipment privileges at its mouth. The long-range issue was the weakness of Spain and the strength of Great Britain.

Jefferson had been Secretary of State when the Nootka affair came to a head. At that time the first question to be dealt with was whether the United States should take part in a war in which a principal battlefield could be on the nation's boundaries if not across its territory. Washington and his advisors decided in favor of neutrality. But Jefferson took the opportunity to point out that, if Spain and Great Britain should occupy Spanish territory, she would then reduce the Americans east of the Mississippi "by her language, laws, religion, manners, government, commerce, capital," and with her fleet on the Atlantic and her possessions in the interior she would encircle the United States completely. "Instead of two neighbors balancing each other, we shall have one, with more than the strength of both."

Jefferson's fears of Britain were not allayed in the 1790s, and his strong prejudices were shared by a large part of the West. American traders and settlers north of the Ohio were vigorously anti-British. The northern boundary at the headwaters of the Mississippi had not been defined at the conclusion of the Revolution; Canadian fur traders occupied the region and held the Indians completely in control. Hides and furs from American territory were drawn off to Montreal and, it was charged, American scalps decorated the lodge poles of Britain's Indian allies.

The year 1793 witnessed a new world crisis with repercussions in domestic politics. The course of revolution had led republican France to war with Great Britain. American sentiment divided sharply into pro-British and pro-French camps, with Jefferson leading the Francophiles. The inner core of his party was persuaded that the French Republic would relieve the United States of both its bothersome monarchical neighbors, Britain and Spain, and would replace them as a strong and friendly republic ally. The plan was that

. . . the Naval Forces of the [French] Republic should seize the Mouth of the Mississippi, declare that the Country belonged to them by right of Conquest and invite the Americans of the Western Country to take advantage of the freedom of Navigation. Then, if the Spaniards situated higher up the river molested the Vessels carrying the provisions conveyed by the Americans, the latter would have the right to repel Constraint and force by force. Thus, the Spanish Government would have no reason to complain of the United States having broken through inasmuch as the country would be reputed in the possession of the French Republic.6

While the French from the Mississippi delta attacked the British West Indies, the Americans would have a free hand in upper Louisiana and could rout the British from the Old Northwest if not from Canada as well.

It was this strategy that lay behind a project for exploring the West in 1793. That January, Jefferson, as vice-president of the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia, suggested to the members that the society support an observer of western affairs who would explore the country along the Missouri and westward to the Pacific Ocean.

Two candidates were considered. One was 19-year-old Meriwether Lewis, an army lieutenant and close friend of Jefferson. The successful candidate was Andre Michaux, a man of mature years, famous as a world traveler and botanist, and an agent of Citizen Genet, the French minister to the United States. The scientific objectives of the expedition were smothered in politics and plots; Michaux's "explorations" were limited and his politics unsuccessful.

With a shift of goals by the French revolutionaries from "liberty, equality, fraternity" to the guillotine and foreign conquest, American Francophiles lost their enthusiasm for France as a protector of the Republic. Further, with Europe involved in revolution and defense against a triumphant Napoleon, there was no immediate threat to United States security from Spain or Britain.

The Louisiana Crisis

Jefferson had hardly become president, in 1801, when he learned that by the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso in December, 1800, Spain had ceded Louisiana to France. He at once recognized this as a matter of momentous importance to the United States. Circumstances were different than they had been in 1793, when French intervention in Louisiana would have given the Americans a republican neighbor. Napoleon, however, had destroyed the French Republic and his territorial policies were little different from those of the monarchs the revolution had expelled. He had, in fact, inherited his royal predecessor's colonial ambitions.

With Napoleon as its master, Louisiana could become not only a base for a French attack upon the British West Indies but for French conquest of North America as well. The tender issues of navigation of the Mississippi and of American rights of deposit at New Orleans could easily become a cause of war between the United States and her former ally, and Jefferson took the position that France and the United States could not remain friends when they met is so "irritable a position." Napoleonic France in North America would force the United States to become a maritime power and a belligerent in European affairs.

That Jefferson should contemplate an alliance with Britain and participation in a European war is evident of the serious light in which he considered the cession of Louisiana. Reviewing the situation in 1803, he explained his own temper and that of his close advisors and Congress in these words:

The exchange of a peaceable for a warring neighbor at New Orleans, was, undoubtedly, ground of just and great disquietude on our part; and the necessity of acquiring the country could not be unperceived by any. The question which divided the Legislature . . . was, whether we should take it at once, and enter singlehanded into war with the most powerful nation on the earth, or place things on the best footing practicable for the present, and avail ourselves of the first war in Europe, which it was clear was at not great distance, to obtain the country as the price of our neutrality, or as a reprisal for wrongs which we were sure enough to receive.7

Jefferson's cabinet agreed that if no arrangement could be made with Napoleon, the government should enter into conference with the British "to fix principles of alliance."

Yet a British alliance was not palatable to Jeffersonian Republicans, nor was Britain considered a disinterested party with respect to Louisiana. In September, 1801, when France and Britain were negotiating the short-lived Peace of Amiens, Secretary of State James Madison warned France that it was in the interest of the United States "to favor any voluntary or compulsive transfer" of Louisiana from Spain to Great Britain as part of a price for the peace. In hope of removing the French threat peaceably, Jefferson asked the United States minister to Paris to find out whether Napoleon would sell the island of New Orleans and one, if not both, Floridas. In 1803, when the European peace was broken, the threat of British ambitions on the Mississippi loomed almost as large as Napoleon's. "The anxiety which Great Britain has shewn to extend her domain to the Mississippi, the uncertain extend of her claims, from North to South, beyond the Western limits of the United States, and the attention she has paid to the North West coast of America," Madison warned, "makes it probable that she will connect with a war . . . a pretension to the acquisition of the country on the West side of the Mississippi. . ."8

So Jefferson decided it was politic to establish an American defense against both France and Britain in the West. He set up a new Indian policy to win potential allies, garrisoned western outposts, and planned a military reconnaissance of the Upper Missouri where Canadian traders were established.

Lewis And Clark

In February, 1801, Jefferson had invited young Meriwether Lewis into is official family as his private secretary. Lewis had "knolege of the Western country, of the army & it's situation" which Jefferson thought might be useful to him. It will be recalled that Lewis had been considered as a leader for the American Philosophical Society's expedition in 1793. Therefore, when Jefferson decided late in 1802 that there was a pressing need for an exploratory expedition into the West, it was more than coincidence that Lewis, who shared Jefferson's concern about that area, should be so readily available.

In the light of Jefferson's designs for an Americanized continent and his distrust of British and French ambitions, this expedition can justifiably be considered a military reconnaissance. Knowledge of the interior's river systems was important; this was particularly so of the possible Missouri-River-of-the-West route. Long experience in frontier wars had taught Americans to appreciate Indians as allies--and as allies of the enemy. Their friendship depended upon accessibility to trading posts, regular supplies of goods, tactful flattery of influential chieftains, and the observance of elementary ideas of justice. The British had been successful in their Indian relations and their influence was spreading into the Upper Missouri. It was to win over the Indian, to get information about the rivers, and to prepare against a possible war that Jefferson originally projected the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Domestic politics and international diplomacy forced Jefferson to secrecy and devious explanations for his actions. He must be sure not to offend either France, with whom delicate negotiations were pending, or Spain, whose officials still controlled Louisiana, resented its cession to France, and were suspicious of everyone, particularly Americans.

Jefferson explained to the Spanish minister that the expedition "would nominally have the objective of investigating everything which might contribute to the progress of commerce; but that in reality it would have no other view than the advancement of geography." Privately, he noted that the "expiring state" of Spain's interest actually made Spanish reactions a "matter of indifference." On January 18, 1803, Jefferson presented "to the special Confidence" of Congress a message of asking an appropriation of $2500 for the innocent purpose "of extending the external commerce of the United States," which he said, "while understood and considered by the Executive as giving legislative sanction, would cover the undertaking from notice. . . ." Thus is explained an expedition actually costing more than $50,000, military in personnel and supply, including no trained scientific observer nor any experience Indian trader, but equipped for winning allies and reconnoitering a strategic area.9

However, Jefferson was not one to miss an opportunity to accomplish, with economy, more than one objective at a time. The expedition was also designed to gather data useful to science. Lewis went to Philadelphia where Robert Patterson and Andrew Ellicott taught him the mathematics and astronomy essential for surveying, map-making, and the use of instruments; Dr. Benjamin Barton helped him with botany and zoology and methods of preserving specimens. Dr. Benjamin Rush advised him on means of protecting the health of the men: they should wear flannel next to the skin in wet weather and shoes without heels; they should wash their feet in the mornings in cold water, and rely upon "opening-pills" for digestive troubles. Rush also helped formulate the questions Lewis might profitably ask the natives concerning their customs and economy.

In the meantime, in April (1803), unexpected good news arrived from France. Napoleon offered to sell the whole of Louisiana to the United States. For the sum of $15,000,000, paid largely in settlements of claims, the United States acquired a land area which more than doubled its territory.

One threat to national security had been removed, but another remained. The British traders still moved westward. And so the expedition was not canceled, nor was its original purpose changed. Albert Gallatin, Jefferson's respected advisor and Secretary of the Treasury, summarized the national purpose:

The present aspect of affairs may, ere long, render it necessary that we should by taking immediate possession, prevent G[reat] B[ritain] from doing the same. Hence a perfect knowledge of the posts, establishments & force kept by Spain in upper Louisiana, and also of the most proper station to occupy, for the purpose of preventing effectually the occupying of any part of the Missouri country by G.B., seems important. With that view the present communications of the British with the Missouri, either from the Mississippi, or, which is still more in point, from the waters emptying in Lake winnipec & generally in Hudson Bay, should be well ascertained, as well as the mode in which a small but sufficient force could best be conveyed to the most proper point from whench to prevent any attempt from Lake Winnipec.10

As sovereign of the Louisiana Territory, the United States had additional cause to seek information about Indian customs and trade and about the character of the country, its plant and animals. Lewis was "to explore the Missouri river, and such principal stream of it, as by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean . . . may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce."

Early in July, Captain Meriwether Lewis set out for Ohio where he met his co-leader and old friend, Lieutenant William Clark. In December they were at St. Louis, where Lewis presented his credentials to the Spanish officials still in command. On December 20, 1803, the flag of Spain was for a brief moment replaced by the tricolor of France. Then it was lowered and, the ceremony of transfer having been carried out, the 15-starred flag of the United States was raised over Louisiana and "the heart of the continent." When the expedition got under way in May, 1804, it traveled from the mouth of the Missouri to the Rockies on American soil.


1E.E. Rich, History of the Hudson's Bay Company, 2 vols. (1958-1959).

2Documents Relating to the North West Company, W. Stewart Wallace, ed. (1934); Gordon C. Davidson, The North West Company (1918); W. Stewart Wallace, Pedlars From Quebec . . . (1954).

3Alexander Mackenzie, Voyages from Montreal . . . Through the Continent of North America . . . (1801), 401-402; First Man West: Alexander Mackenzie's Journal of his Voyage to the Pacific Coast . . . in 1793, Walter Sheppe, ed. (1962).

4A.P. Nasatir, Before Lewis and Clark, 2 vols. (1962), I, 161; Spain in the Mississippi Valley, 1765-1794, Lawrence Kinnaird, ed., American Historical Association Annual Report for 1945 (1949).

5R.W. Van Alstyne, The Rising American Empire (1960).

6Andre Michaux, "Journals of Travels in Kentucky, 1793-1796," in Early Western Travels, R.G. Thwaites, ed. (1904), III, 44-45.

7Thomas Jefferson, Works (Federal edition), X, 20n. The reference to the "first war in Europe" is to the expected resumption of hostilities when the shaky Peace of Amiens collapsed.

8Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States: Canadian Relations, W. R. Manning, ed., 3 vol. (1940), I, 162; Mary P. Adams, "Jefferson's Reaction to the Treaty of San Ildefonso," Journal of Southern History, May 1955.

9See Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854, Donald Jackson, ed. (1962), 10-14, 419-429, 431n.

10Ibid., 32.